The legal definition of a riot under English law is long winded. Written in a language that the rioters of England’s early August riots would have difficulty comprehending. In the United States federal law is even more wordy in its definition of a riot. For the sake of keeping you awake to read this article until the end I’ll give you a very brief summary of both definitions and then post the actual definitions verbatim at the end of the article.
Here’s the main gist of both the UK and US definitions, don’t damage or injure anyone or their property and don’t threaten to do so if you’re part of a group of 12 or more in England, or part of a group of three or more in America.
The fact that there are legal definitions for riots means we’ve experienced them from time to time, the governing state expects them to happen occasionally and have sanctions in place to deal with rioters when they need to be dealt with.
Now that we’re clear on what a riot actually is, let’s ask another question. Who decided that riots were wrong and why is a riot defined differently than a protest?
A protest doesn’t cause damage to persons or property, riots usually do. The rioters destroy the things that have become symbols or reminders of their hardships. Burning a police car, causing destruction to government owned property to name just a couple of examples. Protests have a very clear central message and it is conveyed on placards and posters. Riots are initially lacking a central message, although there is a reason or cause behind the riot. Protesters may yell and wave a placard around, rioters use violence.
Let’s use the word deviant instead of rioter from now on.According to notable Canadian sociologist John Steckley, a deviant is some one who,” acts outside the moral or legal codes that “everyone” (or all “good/strong/wise/moral/upright” people) agree to be in force.” So deviants are the “bad” guys who do “bad” things and these “bad” things are deemed “bad” by the good guys. (I’ll mention these “good guys” again toward the end)
Who decides who is good/strong/wise/moral/upright? How do we know that the ones making the decisions about what is bad behavior and what is good behavior are using sound judgment? The answer, we all decide who is of sound enough judgment to make these decisions for us. We decide it through morals and natural or divine law and collecting data we call statistics which help us to determine what is “normal” behavior.
Let’s get back to the moral, natural or divine law for a moment. It get’s tricky here again also. In some countries it is morally acceptable due to religion to stone married women who have affairs with other men. In America it is morally reprehensible to do this. So morals can get murky with the rights and wrongs of doing something.
Steckly and Letts provide an even better example of this in their book Elements of Sociology: A Critical Canadian Example. Steckly describes natural/divine law’s definition of deviance as “absolute” and lacking in “human agency and the application of power.”
Using America’s laws on the death penalty as an example Steckly says,
“An absolute definition of deviance would define killing as absolutely wrong, you nevertheless find many examples when killing is sanctioned. For example, the Christian presidents of the United States never seem to have a problem sending their armies into other countries to kill and many states, and many countries that are ostensibly Christian, support death penalties.”
What Steckly is telling us is to take the religion, morality and natural/divine law definitions of deviance and disregard them. They’ve been polluted by our own upbringing, religious beliefs and how we perceive reality. There’s the crux of it, how we perceive reality.
Reality when measured and counted and measured again, provides us with statistics that help create a visual called a bell curve.
Let’s pretend that the blue area in the middle shows the percentage of people who get up every morning between 6 and 8am, shower, brush their teeth, comb their hair, get dressed, eat breakfast and then drive off to work, work from 9am-5pm and then drive home, eat dinner, watch television for an hour and then go to bed.
The pink areas on either side of the blue areas are the number of people who don’t have a job, don’t own a house or a car and are paid unemployment benefits. With this money they do their best to make ends meet and for the most part, without all the fancy trappings of wealth, they live somewhat similar lives to the folks in the blue areas.
The guys in the orange areas either side of the pink area live exactly the same lives as those in the pink, except they spend their unemployment money on drink and drugs and rock and roll. Occasionally their money runs out and they turn to crime.
Statistics in other words take the emotion out of measuring what normal behavior is and what deviant behavior is. It measures averages and medians and plots them on a mountain like bell curve.
Most of us would fall into the category of the blue area. Some of us less fortunate were or are in the pink areas, but the real issue is the orange area and their attitudes towards everyone else. If you are familiar with the H.G. Wells’ novel The Time Machine you’ll appreciate this next analogy. The upper and middle classes are representative of the child like Eloi who occasionally find that one of their kind is “missing” due to the Morlocks, the lower classes. The Morlocks are rarely seen, but the terror they instill is effective and stuns the Eloi. Sound familiar?
So the rioters, guys in the orange area, deviants, Morlocks; what ever you want to call them, are the bad guys because they are acting outside of the norm.
Not so fast! Remember that student who stood in front of a tank in Tienanmen Square in 1989.
Was he a bad guy? He was acting outside of the norm. He challenged his government, the law and his fellow countrymen who were, “good/strong/wise/moral/upright” citizens.
What about the Rodney King rioters in Los Angeles in 1992? Were those people all deviants? The three Brixton riots of 1981, 1985 and 1995? The 164 race riots in over 128 American cities in 1964? Are these people all bad seeds? The 2008 Greek riots due to police killing a 15 year old and the 2010 and 2011 austerity measures riots? The French riots of 2005, Norrebro riots of 2001, the Tibet riots of 2008, Pakistan riots of 2006, Jakarta riots of 1998 and the list goes on and on.
What do rioters have in common when we remember their actions as heroic?
The answer I think is twofold;
1. They had a common cause.
2. They didn’t loot during riots.
Looting is the “have nots” taking from the “haves” and forgetting that the “haves” had to pay for the items being taken. This sense of entitlement and instant gratification mars the message, if there is indeed one, of England’s rioters.
It is this lack of a common cause, a central message, violence and looting that makes the world watch and respond with cries of “Thugs!” or “These people are a result of their society. and need our help.” Both statements are true. Society has “haves” and “have nots.”
Frank Parkin’s book Class Inequality and Political Order says that without a third world we wouldn’t have a first world. The reason there is an upper and middle class at all is because the lower classes exist. We all need each other to exist, and so the vicious circle revolves. The upper classes have lower classes cleaning houses, cutting lawns and serving food, and the lower classes do it so that they can make a living.
In developed countries we have created an illusion; You too can have it all. In a recession however the illusion is shattered. You simply can not have it all. You’ve got to give something up in order to re-prioritize and take stock of what is a “need” and what is a “want.”
The teens and twenty something-year-olds that are terrorizing the city streets of England this past week, want it all and they want it now. Looters are displaying their looted bounty on Facebook. Should we feel empathy for these rioters who loot and lose the message behind why they are rioting in the first place?
In ‘Anarchy in the UK’ in The Nation Maria Margaronis says,
“The gap between rich and poor grew wider, racism was allowed to fester, consumerism and celebrity culture replaced community.”
In most countries upper or privileged classes hold all the political, commercial and legal power, widening the rich and poor gap even more and tipping the scales in favor of the rich.
John Steckler believes that legal systems themselves are biased toward race and that crimes committed by poor people often carry heavier penalties than the same crime committed by the wealthy or middle classes.
“Take two individuals, one rich and white, and one poor and native, have them commit the same crime, and chances are good that, even though they have no priors, the white man walks and the native goes to jail (or is sanctioned more heavily)—the same deviant act, but a different application of the rules,” Steckler says in his book Elements of Sociology: A Critical Canadian Introduction. (Chapter 6 Deviance)
“We create the world we live in,” Steckler says and continues on, “the biased creation of deviance, and the biased application of sanction, is perhaps not surprising considering the fact that the legal system is dominated by white, affluent, men.”
Remember the “good guys” I mentioned in the fifth paragraph? These are the same fellas right here. They hold all the power when it comes to making decisions that effect all of us, rich and poor.
Should we feel sorry then for the guy who stole from the Asian student’s back pack or the Asian student himself sitting bloodied and shaken on the ground during the London riots? Watch the video here and you decide. Who should we have empathy for? The people that Steckler and Margaronis say we have created or the people being looted?
Empathy is indeed needed, but not for the rioters who destruct or steal other people’s property and kill those who try to defend their livelihood.
Save your empathy for people like Tarik Jahan, a Pakistani business owner who knows the true meaning of the word “community.”
“We’re here defending the community of all the problems that are going on in the country,” said Jahan explaining why he and his son tried to defend their community from looters.
According to The Guardian Jahan and his son were, “part of a group of around 80 guarding a petrol station and shops from looters in Winson Green.” The article said that Haroon Jahan, 21, and brothers Shazad Ali, 30 and Abdul Musavir, 31 , “were victims of a hit-and-run in the early hours of Wednesday.”
“Blacks, Asians, whites. We all live in the same community. Why do we have to kill one another?” said Tarik Jahan after rioters had killed his 21 year old son.
Jahan was busy trying to administer CPR to another friend who was also defending the community, unaware that his own son lay dead behind him. This is the type of person we should save our empathy for, not a nation of instant gratification thugs who just take what they want and leave mayhem, destruction and death in their wake.
Legal Definition of a Riot in the United Kigdom
“The law states that a riot is defined by Public Order Act 1986 where 12 or more persons, “together use or threaten unlawful violence for a common purpose and the conduct of them (taken together) is such as would cause a person of reasonable firmness present at the scene to fear for his personal safety.”
Legal Definition of a Riot in the United States
The legal definition of a riot in the United States is,”A public disturbance involving (1) an act or acts of violence by one or more persons part of an assemblage of three or more persons, which act or acts shall constitute a clear and present danger of, or shall result in, damage or injury to the property of any other person or to the person of any other individual or (2) a threat or threats of the commission of an act or acts of violence by one or more persons part of an assemblage of three or more persons having, individually or collectively, the ability of immediate execution of such threat or threats, where the performance of the threatened act or acts of violence would constitute a clear and present danger of, or would result in, damage or injury to the property of any other person or to the person of any other individual. 18 U.S.C. §2102